Happy Chinese New Year! Gong Xi Fa Cai! I remembered when I was younger, it used to be Kong Hi Fat Choi. I wrote this article for the Chinese New Year and got it published last Monday (31st January 2011) on The Golden Legacy column on Brunei Times. I hope you enjoy reading it.
The Practises and Taboos of the Chinese New Year
In a few days time, it will be the most auspicious occasion for the Chinese community in Brunei and more than 1.3 billion Chinese around the world — the Chinese New Year.
Chinese New Year celebrations are marked by new-year visits to kins, relatives and friends. Everyone will be wearing new clothes to signify a new year and most in various shades of red. To the Chinese, the red colour is the emblem of joy, and symbolises virtue, truth and sincerity.
Wearing red is not the only practice. There are many other practices and also taboos during the Chinese New Year. Almost all of the Chinese New Year’s practices are based on legends and stories that are told from many years ago. The origin of the New Year also began with a legend.
Many Chinese by now know the legend of the origin of Chinese New Year began with a fight against a mythical beast called Nien. Many years ago, it was said that Nien would come on the first day of New Year to devour livestock, crops including villagers especially children. To protect themselves, the villagers barricaded themselves and place food in front of their doors.
Over time, they saw that Nien could be scared away by the colour red as well as by loud noises. So every time when the Chinese New Year was about to come, the inhabitants would hang red lanterns and red spring scrolls on windows and doors. They also used firecrackers. These were said to frighten away the Nien.
What a number of Chinese do not know is another legend and hence which had led to another celebration during the Chinese New Year itself. This is the Pai Ti Kong celebrated by the Hokkien Chinese on the eve of the ninth day of the Chinese New Year. The prayers to the heavenly supreme deity Jade Emperor was said to have occurred because of one legend. Three different versions have been told.
One version said to have occurred during the Song Dynasty, was during a time when the Mongolians attacked Southern China. Hokkien or Fujian Province was especially targeted where the Mongols wanted to kill all the inhabitants in the province during that time. It was a time of great fear. What was left of the tribe hid themselves in a sugarcane plantation in the hopes of being spared from the Mongols.
It was on the ninth day of their hiding that the Mongolians finally gave up searching for them. This is said to coincide with the ninth day of Chinese New Year. The province inhabitants believed that the gods in Heavens were looking out for them. This started the tradition of praying to the King of Heaven on the eve of the ninth day of the New Year.
Another version was to have occurred during the 16th century. It was a time when ships abound and there were pirates operating on the east coast of China. On a Chinese New Year during that era, the pirates were raiding the east coast of Fujian Province. These pirates invaded the east coast from all direction and killed everybody who they came across.
The inhabitants felt so hopeless and were just about to give up, when suddenly, a sugarcane farm suddenly appeared in front of them. They were all saved by keeping themselves hidden in the sugarcane farm. That day was the 9th of the first lunar month. Again, the survivors believed that this was because they had help from the Jade Emperor. In order to present their faithfulness to the Jade Emperor, the Hokkiens started the practice of celebrating on the 9th day of the first lunar month with sugarcane.
The final version involved General Meng. Meng was said to have had a special ability of being able to speak and understand the local dialect simply by drinking the water in that province. During that time, he was assigned to eliminate all non residents in any province. He relied on his special ability to determine if the people were local or outsiders.
During his visit on Fujian Province, his servants mistakenly brought him water from other province. He therefore could not understand the dialect spoken by the Fujian residents. That made him believed that the Fujian residents were outsiders. Based on this he sent an order to kill all the residents. The carnage took place until the ninth day of the first lunar month. He drank the local well water and suddenly mastered the Fujian dialect. It was only then he realized that he had killed the wrong people and stopped the carnage. From then on, Fujian residents rejoiced on that day and believed it was a miracle from the deity Jade Emperor.
The Chinese have a number of taboos which is practised during the celebrations though some are starting to fade away. Among the popular ones include a taboo not to sweep the floor especially on the first few days. After that the refuse must be swept into the direction of one’s house as this symbolises fortune is not being swept away.
Another is not having hair cuts during the 15 days period. The reason given is that hair sounds like “prosperity” in mandarin, hence no cutting.
A third taboo is not to wash one’s hair in the first three days.
A fourth is not to say anything that is not nice especially swearing and cursing. This is clearly not auspicious.
A fifth is to eat vegetarian food only as the first day of the new year is said to be when all the gods meet and not every single one of them is a carnivore. The elderly also believed that anything bad that happens during the new year period is a bad sign for the rest of the year.
Another taboo still practised today is that the diners are not allowed to finish all the food during the reunion dinner. This is to ensure that they will continue to have “rezeki” or prosperity the coming year.
Celebrations must have the red packet or better known as Ang Pow — a gift from elder to the young. Only those married are allowed to give ang pows. However, despite the marital status one can give it to one’s parents or the elderly grandparents and uncles but not to the younger ones.
The red packets had to be filled with even numbers but not $4 as the number Four is a homophone for death. So for the less wealthy, the minimum ang pow would be $1.20 to make it an even amount.
Our best wishes for the Brunei Chinese celebrating their new year includes “Gong Xi Fa Cai” (wishing you prosperity); “Wan Shi Ru Yi” (may your wish come true); “Sen Ti An Kang” (wishing you good health) and “Lung Ma Jing Shen” (wishing you good spirit and good health).